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On Being (or Not Being) a Spiritual Teacher

Many friends and colleagues (if I can call them that) in the world of awakening, liberation, nonduality, or whatever we call this, have abandoned the word spirituality altogether. After all, what is not spiritual? By suggesting that some activities or things are spiritual and others are not, we have created a false duality. And on top of that, the word too often seems to suggest a wide array of beliefs, experiences, happenings and perspectives that have nothing whatsoever to do with what we are pointing out or expressing—stuff like angels, reincarnating souls, creating one’s own reality, choosing your parents before you are born, going into special samadhi states, going to heaven during a near-death experience, seeing blue lights, and a host of other things.

And then there’s that pesky word teacher—my main teacher, Toni Packer, refused to use this word. She simply called herself my friend. And we were friends. But the truth is, she was also my teacher. Of course, in some ways, I was her teacher, too, but for the most part, she was my teacher. I used to argue with her about this, telling her she was in denial, but when I started holding meetings myself, I knew where she was coming from, because I never think of myself as a teacher, nor do I think of the people I meet with as my students. That would feel strangely pretentious and divisive, and would seem only to reinforce false ideas about who we each are. Occasionally, for practical purposes, I do use the word, as did Toni. But when I gave a retreat at Springwater a few years back, that’s the Center Toni founded, my job assignment was listed as “giving talks and holding meetings,” not “teacher.” Their choice, not mine, but it made me smile.

I’m much more comfortable calling myself a writer than calling myself a teacher. And the truth is, I’m none of these…I’m no-thing at all, being Here-Now as this present experiencing and this awaring presence, and sometimes that shows up as this activity we call writing, and sometimes it shows up as giving a talk or meeting with someone, and sometimes it shows up as what we call eating lunch or vacuuming the house or doing the laundry or sitting in my armchair doing nothing at all.

When people ask me the dreaded question, “What do you do?” I always feel stumped. Hmmmm. What do I do? Such a mysterious question. One friend of mine always answers this question when she is asked by saying, “As little as possible.”

After a moment of feeling clueless, I come up with a range of replies depending on the context and who is asking. If I say I write books, they want to know what they’re about. Then I’m back to the same dilemma. Sometimes I say I teach or write about meditation and awareness, because most people understand that in some way, although it isn’t actually how I would describe what I do at all. Sometimes I say I write and talk about nonduality, but that doesn’t really completely hit the mark for me either, and many people have no idea what that might mean, and if they ask, then what do I say? Clueless again. If I say I point to enlightenment or to being liberated on the spot, that can sound a bit pretentious and can create false ideas of something exotic or grandiose. Sometimes I use the word spiritual, and maybe they think I talk about angels or channel disembodied entities or meditate on blue lights.

I’ve been variously called a spiritual teacher, a Zen teacher, a nondualist, a Buddhist, a meditation teacher, a writer, an author, a satsang teacher, a student of Toni Packer, the person whose job is giving talks and holding meetings, and a few less flattering names as well, and I’m actually fine with all of them. On one of my Facebook pages, I say simply that, "I write and talk about being awake here-now." The bottom-line is that I'm just doing what I cannot help doing, expressing what I'm moved by life to express.

Alan Watts called himself a spiritual entertainer, and I always appreciated that. Karl Renz once called himself a rug-puller, as in pulling the rug out from under you, and I like that one too. Some of those old Zen guys called themselves cloud-watchers or said they were not doing anything. I got a fortune cookie once years ago that said, “You will be paid thousands of dollars daily for doing nothing.” But I have found that doing nothing can be trickier than it sounds. One old Zen guy said he was engaged in selling water by the banks of the river, which is a perfect description of this strange and baffling job. Or, as someone else in the business once said, I just wasn’t qualified for anything else. 

-- copyright Joan Tollifson 2018--

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